Last night at the Lansing "The Ensign" was presented to a crowded and enthusiastic house. It was certainly one of the most sympathetic and responsive audiences of the season. Young America was there with all his helpful enthusiasm and hopeful credulity, and it would take a more cynical critic than the present one to laugh at his patriotism or his happy faculty of being pleased in spite of drawbacks. "The Ensign" is like most military and naval dramas, a sort of Fourth of July carried on all the year round, with the usual stars, stripes and patriotic speeches. The note of the screaming eagle runs all through it. It has plenty of thrilling situations and several climaxes that are both thrilling and legitimate. Act one was good because it had a man in it, a real live man who could laugh and talk and kiss a pretty girl. Men are rare on the stage and we appreciate the midshipman. The second act was weary by reason of the quarrel therein, but endurable because of the hair erecting scene at the end. Act three was gratuitous. A trial is generally a bore to anyone but attorneys who receive the fees and the unfortunates who pay them. Act four was very moist, and must have caused several special handkerchief sales. Act five was very affectionate and was served up with universal paleness. Indeed fifth act complexions must always be rather hard on the white part of the makeup box. In this play, as in all others, in the first act the actors were of lobster redness and were gradually toned down through the play until they reached the ghostly stage in the last act. On the whole the play is as good as the average public deserves, it is visible and audible and exciting and contains enough patriotism and profanity to be forever dear to the hearts of the American people.
As usual the hero had the worst part and was the worst actor. In fact the whole play was very usual. The role was played by Mr. Edwards . It is unfortunate that Mr. Edwards can't be a hero and a good fellow at the same time. So far as we are aware, American naval officers are not at all saints, and are very different men from the young deacon who trod the deck of the Jacinto last night. The young ensign was entirely too good for this wicked world, and we were rather glad when he so nearly got out of it. We felt all the time that he ought to be in his Sunday school class and not around on a ship where he might learn to swear. Mr. Edwards could not make love at all, unless he improves he ought not to be allowed to try it with such a pretty Alice as Miss Gaunt . He cannot even kiss properly or enthusiastically, and that certainly is one of the most primitive of amorous accomplishments. Perhaps that also was because he was so good. At any rate he was surely a laggard in love, whatever he was in war.
Mr. George Wright as Midshipman Watson was a jolly tar and a bit of an actor, quite a bit, in fact he was the chief masculine attraction of the play. He was lively, natural and generally up in his business. Coxswain Jack was good, but very nearly spoiled it all when he got onto his "poor old mother," in whose last illness and funeral exercises we were not sufficiently interested.
Of course Mr. Deal was good, a man must be good and mighty good to suggest "Old Abe." Miss Gaunt as Alice Greer deserves sincere congratulations, she is pretty and conscientious, and she makes the part very inoffensive and endurable, which, considering the part, is a great deal. Miss Edith Wright as Mary is undoubtedly the star, leading man and leading lady and redeeming angel of the play. She is not too sweet nor too pert, nor too soft a la Fauntleroy . The critic has not lately seen a child actress of such promise.
Lansing Theatre: The Lansing Theater, on the southwest corner of 13th and P Streets, was built in 1891, displacing the Funke Opera House as the largest and finest theater in Lincoln. The owners were J.F. Lansing (b. 1842), a Lincoln real estate man, and his brother-in-law Henry Oliver (b. 1857); Edward A. Church was the manager. According to the program of the opening week (November 23-28, 1891) the auditorium consisted of the orchestra and parquet seating on the main level, with dress circle at the rear and sides; three tiers of five boxes each and six loges were at the sides. Above were the balcony and the gallery. With standing room, about 2500 people could be present.
The building also housed offices, including that of Cather's friend and fellow reviewer, Dr. Julius H. Tyndale. It was renamed the Oliver Theater in 1898.
The Ensign: This patriotic play by William Haworth opened in Washington, D. C., February 1, 1892. The plot is based on the Trent affair in 1861, when two emissaries of the Confederacy went to Cuba and took ship on the British mail steamer, the Trent, bound for England. Captain Wilkes, of the U.S. Navy, learned of their mission and intercepted the British vessel, taking the Confederates captive; the incident almost provoked Great Britain to declare war. The play aroused some controversy by the realistic makeup of the actors playing President Lincoln, Admiral Farragut, Captain Wilkes, and Lieutenant Fairfax.
In 1898, after the funeral of a young Pittsburgh officer who had been killed in the explosion of the Maine in Havana, Cather wrote, "I sat at my desk thinking with astonishment of the days when I used to laugh at the 'patriotic bathos' of "The Ensign" and similar military and naval dramas. The most tawdry of them would move me now" (Courier, 23 April 1898, 3).
Image at The Library of Congress
Miss Edith Wright: An actress of this name appeared on the New York stage in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1897) and Maytime (1917); she may be the same actress who appeared in early silent films, including Santa Claus vs. Cupid (1915), The Martyrdom of Philip Strong (1916), Passion (1917), and Where Love Is (1917).
Fauntleroy: The hero of Frances Hodgson Burnett's popular novel and play (and 1936 movie), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1888) was a sweet little boy, brought up in genteel poverty in America, who becomes the heir to a British earldom and wins over his proud, cantankerous grandfather, the earl. Fauntleroy wore long curls and velvet knee breeches, setting a style for young boys that was very popular with mothers and unpopular with their sons. To call a boy a Fauntleroy was tantamount to calling him a sissy.